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How Much Is Enough (Income)?

As I mention in my commentary on the Catechism’s treatment of possessions, the central distinction required to implement its principles is a distinction between what possessions are necessary and basic, and what is superfluous. The superfluous stuff is supposed to be directed toward “the universal destination of goods” – that is, God’s will that all share in the bounty of the creation, for it is given to all.

In a wage society, for most people, “enough” will look like a number – as in “enough purchasing power to live a decent life.” But what is that? It is not an easy number to determine. Take this Washington Post story from a few months ago, about a family struggling to live on $90,000 a year – the comment thread tells us how divided people can become on these questions. My friend Bob Sullivan, a wonderfully incisive and committed writer you should check out, engaged me and others in our choir after Mass in this discussion… and has now posted a great blog post estimating what a family of four needs in DC.

Here, I’m posting several other estimates, with details, that I’ve been using in my work on the problem of determining what luxury is:

Comparing current cost-of-living data[1]

  EPI   living wage – family – MD JOBS   NOW living wage – family – MN CEX   2009 – income 40-50K[2] CEX   2009 – family[3] CEX   2009 – income 100-120K[4]
Food $9,048 $8,280 $5,384 $9,827 $9,622
Shelter   & util $15,012 $13,440 $11,990 $19,141 $18,808
Transportation $7,284 $5,460 $6,393 $9,988 $12,378
Medical $4,554[5] $5,448 $2,937 $3,460 $4,385
Miscellaneous   spending $6,156 $3,804 $12,849 $27,913 $30,947
Total   budget/spending $42,054[6] $36,432[7] $39,553 $70,329 $76,140

I’m interested – as Bob is – in others’ view of these estimates. Look at the footnotes for assumptions and the like, if you really want to geek out on this. But especially for readers with families, do these numbers seem plausible? High? Low? Obviously, there are individual issues in every case, but can there be a core of basic needs defined? Or is Amartya Sen correct in suggesting that, rather than a basket of goods everyone needs, basic necessity is defined by “capabilities”, focusing on questions like “Can they take part in the life of the community?” or “Can they appear in public without feeling disgraced?” or “Can they visit friends and relations if they choose?” This approach suggests that social participation is really the standard that should and does guide prudential judgments about the necessity of commodities. This accords well with the first two themes of Catholic social teaching identified by the U.S. bishops: dignity, but understood as a matter of participation.

What makes “participation” possible could present an even bigger challenge to these numbers. The discussion amongst the choir noted how hard it is for families to find any opportunity for the kinds of social involvement the Church urges and many people would like to do… if they were not burning the candle at both ends. Should they just move to Columbus? What is your view?



[1] For all examples, “family” is a four-person household. The JOBS NOW calculator is for the state of Minnesota – calculations are used for the metro Twin Cities area. The EPI (Economic Policy Institute) calculator can be customized to any US location. The numbers here are used for the Baltimore, MD metro. The BLS data is available in multiple tables at

[2] This income bracket includes an average household with 2.5 persons, 1.3 of whom work, and there are 0.6 children. Thus, the numbers would be predictably smaller than estimates for a larger household size.

[3] This is the breakdown for the household category of “husband and wife, oldest child 6 to 17” – the average household size here is 4.1, so while the category includes families with more and fewer than two children, the average is very close to two children.

[4] This income bracket includes an average household of 3.0 persons, 1.9 of whom work, and there are 0.8 children.

[5] The EPI calculator assumes no employer subsidy for medical insurance. For comparison, I have taken 25% of their number, to represent a typical employer-subsidized plan split. The JOBS NOW calculator includes subsidized employer insurance. The CEX data measures only direct medical spending. Thus, the comparison here is difficult.

[6] The total here is less than what the web calculator shows; their estimator includes child care, whereas the JOBS NOW calculator assumes for a four-person family that there are no direct child care expenses.

[7] The JOBS NOW database assumes that this family will have a negative income tax bill, and their income needs are thus lowered. The EPI has a substantial positive tax bill. Since CEX data measures income and spending before taxes, I have taken out taxes in both wage calculators.



  1. When you say: “… the central distinction required to implement [the Catechism’s] principles is a distinction between what possessions are necessary and basic, and what is superfluous”, that may not accurately summarize Catholic teaching.

    For example, Gaudium et Spes says: “… the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.”

    Likewise, it is quite possible that an individual might spend a million dollars on a Stradivarius violin for themselves to play, or five million on a private jet to transport themselves, or ten million on a house to live in — provided it would in particular circumstances overall benefit the common good. Any individual steward of goods may have their own talents to apply, and goals to achieve. It is not ruled out that the individual benefits from use of their own goods, provided their use is simultaneously aimed at the common good.

    So there is no budgetary process or numerical boundary that firmly divides ownership into two parts, one personal and the other common. Rather, all use of property takes the common destination of goods into account.

    I certainly agree that the universal destination of goods is under-taught and very weakly appreciated, and this needs to change. But it is not a financial accounting problem. (Perhaps a different kind of accounting: Matt 25:14-29)

    • I appreciate the generous response! I agree that a strictly numerical boundary isn’t possible, and even if it were, would not be desirable. For example, it is appropriate to be concerned about those who produce one’s basic necessities and whether they are receiving a living wage. If one spends more for fair-trade goods, for example, one is seeking one’s own basic nourishment, but also achieving the universal destination of goods. What I am not quite sure about is the “flip side” of this example – that is, how does the private jet or the mansion serve the common good? I understand the usual response here is about job creation, but that response basically means there is no way to spend money that is not “for the common good.” The Catechism recommends moderation, hospitality (saving the best for guests), etc. – in my book, I do talk about “festival goods” and “vocational goods” – that is, special sharing of extravagent goods for celebration and the use of particular (and possibly expensive) goods in order to fulfill a vocation. But I still am not quite sure how a $10 million private mansion would ever qualify. I agree there is no absolute monetary limit – but I do think that prudence can be guided by rough estimates.

      • While it is difficult to spend money in a way that does not somehow benefit the common good, that does not mean that any choice to spend money is aimed at the common good. It is the aiming that contributes to making a particular choice moral. The same sum of money can be aimed mostly at satisfying only our own personal desires, or a more selective choice can be made that is aimed at the common good.

        For example: a violinist who gives concerts could buy a million-dollar Stradivarius because it will give the audience a better appreciation for the music; and this could be morally legitimate even if it gives the violinist intense personal pleasure in possessing such a thing. Whereas someone who buys the Stradivarius for a personal collection, where it will be rarely used or viewed, does not have the common good in aim.

        Someone might build a ten-million-dollar mansion, being careful to do it in such a way as to provide highly welcome employment to all kinds of workers where there was little work available. It would be aiming at a common good, whereas simply buying a pre-existing house might not.

        The problem with being rich is not the money — it’s the great ease with which one can become focused on satisfying personal wishes. The escape is not necessarily to determine some “superfluous” limit and eject the rest (though that will work for some), but for the rich person to aim its use at the common good.

  2. I think that more conversation is needed. I don’t think that there is a specific number that would be “enough”. However, I think that most of us would agree that a $10million mansion is excessive, regardless of family size.
    I would like to see this be a conversation topic in parishes and in youth groups. It seems to me that it would be helpful to get away from the idea that one’s goal should be to get “more”.

  3. David, Your income levels would leave whole areas, like Manhattan, SF, and Miami, devoid of Catholics. Isn’t the laity responsible to spread the Word to these areas as well?

  4. David,

    This is an interesting post and important topic-I am looking forward to reading the book! My students and I wrestle with this question in our conversations about consumerism and globalization: we recognize that other people are hurting in the global economy but we cannot reconcile the idea of economic privilege with the experience that many of our families are struggling to make ends meet. There is also a recognition that current economic practices are unsustainable but a reluctance to forego any of our own economic comforts as a part of a moral response. The standard response: why can’t we just bring everyone up to the same level? Why can’t everyone live like I live?

    How should we respond to this tension between economic struggle and privilege?

  5. David,
    I am so glad you wrote this post as this is an issue really on my heart these days. When I left my job, my husband took a position for the year which pays only slightly above the federal poverty level for a family of four. Hopefully we will make more in future years but this year, we are trying to make ends meet without going over his salary. Some thoughts:

    Housing costs are often driven up by the need to live in a “safe” neighborhood, especially when you have kids. While we feel this pressure, we have also discovered that white, middle-class assumptions of what is “safe” are distorted by a tacit prejudice against people of color and the lifestyles that go along with it. Many a white mom has clucked disapprovingly of our neighborhood, which is almost completely Hispanic, out of concern for “safety.” Our neighborhood certainly isn’t pretty. Nobody cuts their grass, graffiti is ubiquitous, and litter even more so. But it isn’t unsafe. On the contrary, our neighbors do a great job taking care of our little family. But people assume it is a bad neighborhood because of the way it looks and the people who live there. If we are willing to live outside of the standard comfort zone for the white middle class, I think we can see housing costs reduced. For us too, this reduces transportation costs because it allows us to live in the city rather than the suburbs, which also allows us to use public transportation and bikes to get places. If we were living in the nicer (and whiter) suburbs, we would have to pay a lot more for transportation costs.

    But more to the point, where we choose to live is a big part of framing how we participate in society. I definitely do feel shame and embarrassment when I hang out with other moms who live in the nice suburbs. I would love to invite their kids over, for example, but I know (or at least I feel) that they would be uncomfortable in our home and in our neighborhood. I also can’t do a lot of the things they do. Moms’ nights out, for example, are not a possibility on our income. Field trips to the kid museum (not accessible by public transportation and too far to bike) are also out since I don’t have a car. In the few short months that I’ve been here, I’ve turned down more social invitations than I have accepted because I either practically or financially cannot participate. BUT, when I live like my neighbors, I find I can participate fully and I am finding that neither I nor my kids really seem to suffer. My neighbors don’t leave the neighborhood, mostly for the same reasons I don’t. We don’t have cars. But they walk to playgrounds and play at each other’s house. Everybody is generous with toys, food and space. My house is often filled with neighbor children and I don’t feel shame at our small space, humble snacks, or lack of toy room.

    Social participation seems to me a moving target and we are prone to self-deception about what it requires due to what we see all around us. And “keeping up with the Joneses” is not just a cliche here. Even if I could afford to live in the nicer suburbs, I couldn’t afford to be happy there because I couldn’t do what my peers were doing. I couldn’t shop at their nice organic grocery stores or buy their nice toys or organize nice tea parties in my playroom for the kids while the moms sipped nice wine I bought. I would feel it; my kids would feel it. But living in a poorer neighborhood allows us to participate in society in a way that we can’t with middle class folks without feeling shame or disgrace.

    Let me be straight in what is already a too-long response: I am all for a living wage and these numbers do not seem too high for me, especially when you account for all the extra help those who live far below these numbers get (Medicaid for kids or even adults if you live in the right state, WIC, SNAP, housing assistance, etc.). All I am saying is that if our goal is participation, which I think it should be, we should challenge ourselves to think of participation outside of the standard middle class expectations. It seems to me that that the church can play a really vital role showing that these numbers really aren’t too low at all.


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